60 Years on Everest: Is It Safer Now?
The world's 14 "eight-thousanders" -- mountains taller than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) -- are all located in Asia. On one hand, they really beautify a horizon, but on the other they present a fierce, at times fatal, challenge to mountain climbers. Beauty can, indeed, be deadly. Here's the "baby" of the bunch, Shishapangma in Tibet, peaking at 8,027 meters (26,335 feet).
This is Gasherbrum II (we'll have another Gasherbrum coming up shortly), on the border of Pakistan and China. It's 8,035 meters up in the sky (26,361 feet) and is sometimes known as K4. These mountaineers are near the summit.
Ed Darack/Science Faction/Corbis
On the left side of this picture we see the sheer mass of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain on the planet at 8,047 meters or 26,394 feet above sea level.
As promised, here's another Gasherbrum: Gasherbrum I. (Gasherbrum, translated from the Tibetan language Balti, means "beautiful mountain.") It also goes by the name of K5, lives along the China-Pakistan border and is 8,080 meters (26,444 ft) high.
The Himalayan mountain range Annapurna, in Nepal, is seen here from Pkhara, about 124 miles (200 kilometers) west of Kathmandu. Annapurna is considered one of the most dangerous for climbers; first crested in 1950, it has since been climbed by more than 100 people but taken 53 lives along the way.
This somewhat unsettling photo was taken in 1931 by mountaineers at a base camp on Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, the ninth-tallest eight-thousander at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet). The area captured in the picture is known as the Nanga Wall.
Association Chantal Mauduit Namaste/Corbis/Sygma
Eighth-tallest of the eight-thousanders is Nepal's Manaslu, at 8,163 meters (26,781 feet).
The Dhaulagiri mountain range in the Himalayas sports a rather volcanic look in this picture, with the sun brushing its top. But Nepal's 8,167-meter (26,795-foot) monster is of course quite chilly on top. Dhaulagiri's south face is considered by mountaineers to be a next-to-impossible climb, and no one has ever topped the mountain from that side.
Clouds hover over snow-covered Cho Oyu mountain in Tibet. The sixth-tallest mountain stands 8,201 meters tall (26,906 feet), and the "Mountain Goddess" (in Tibetan translation) is considered one of less-challenging climbs among the eight-thousanders (if you don't consider climbing ANY mountain a challenge, that is!).
Next in the eight-thousander club is Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world, looming on the border between Nepal and China. It's 8,463 meters (27,766 feet) tall and is another tough climb, with 22 deaths tallied against its 206 successful climbs.
Pal Teravagimov Photography
Standing 8,516 meters tall (27,940 feet), Lhotse, fourth-tallest, rests on the border of Nepal and Tibet. It was first climbed in 1956.
Kangchenjunga, in Nepal, is the world's third-tallest mountain, edging Lhotse by just 71 meters, standing 8,587 meters tall (28,169 feet). It's a prominent mark on the horizon in Darjeeling, the tea-growing region.
K2, the second-tallest mountain on the planet, is 8,611 meters up in the clouds (28,251 feet) along the China-Pakistan border. Climbers know it for its incredibly difficult ascent routes; in 2008, an ice fall on the treacherous slopes took the lives of 11 climbers.
And now we reach the Big Daddy in the worldwide mountains club. That, of course, would be Mount Everest. Its name alone is synonymous with challenging feats, as climbing it continues to this day to be a dicey endeavor, though it draws people year after year to attempt the ascent. And what a climb: Mount Everest stands 8,848 meters tall (29,029 feet). It was famously crested for the first time in 1953 by New Zealand climber Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.
In the past few years, the number of climbers attempting to summit the world’s tallest mountain has risen to the point that Base Camp resembles a small town. Many have associated the crowds with increasing danger. Sensational headlines call the mountain a “death trap” and a “morgue.” But one climber’s analysis of data reveals that the number of deaths per summit has actually declined.
“I thought it would be interesting to look at this question because whenever anyone dies on Everest the media goes crazy,” said Alan Arnette, who has been to Everest four times and summited in 2011. “I thought, wait a minute; let’s really look at the facts.”
When he did, gleaning statistics from the Himalayan Database, 8000ers.com and Wikipedia, he found that the death rate per summit has dropped significantly since the 1990s.
When commercialization hit the mountain in the 90s, the rate went up to 5.56 percent. And since 2000, it's dropped to 1.5 percent. That’s lower than the overall death rate of 3.2 percent since 1922.
Of course, because 5,048 of the 6,214 summits have been in the 2000s, there are more actual deaths: 69 since 2000, vs. 59 in the 90s.
Ellen Miller, the first American woman to climb the mountain from both sides, agrees that safety innovations have made the climb less risky than it was decades ago.
“Armchair mountaineers really generalize a lot about Mount Everest,” Miller said. “They say, oh, it’s so dangerous now because of the crowds. But my perception is that it’s safer now than it was 50 years ago.”
The most obvious safety innovation is much improved weather forecasting and communication. Other factors, such as improved responsibility among commercial outfitters, using established routes, and better partnership with sherpas, probably also play a role.
Some think that with today’s forecasting, the 1996 tragedy might have been avoided. A surprise storm hit Everest and eight people died during a two-day span in May.
Today, not only are the predictions better, but communication is fairly simple: Cell phone antennas were installed in base camp in 2010. Arnette's team delayed their summit by a week last year because they knew a front was moving in.
Also, the standard routes up the mountain have been so well established that guides are extremely familiar with their nuances. That wasn’t the case in the '70s and '80s when climbers were busy forging new treks to the top. While a couple of teams of professional climbers will attempt two new routes this year, it's quite rare to venture outside the two standard routes, Arnette said.
Sherpas, who help carry heavy loads for Westerners to the high camps, have often summited many times, so they know the specific route and dangers. As Sherpa support has gone up, deaths on the mountain have gone down. More climbers are hiring their own Sherpas instead of relying on the idea that they will be around if needed. It used to be a common mistake to go in thinking that no matter what happens, a Sherpa will be able to perform a miracle and save your life, Arnette said.
"Sherpas are experiencing the storms in the same way," Arnette said. "If it's 40 below zero and you can't see because there's a 40-mph wind, I don't care if you're Nepalize or German or American."
And while there’s no denying the crowds, Miller said people are most often gracious in allowing experienced climbers to hike through.
“If people are looking for a wilderness experience, they’re not going to find it on Everest -- or even the 14ers,” she said. “People need to be clear about their expectations.”
Of course, some safety precautions remain the same. Key among them is understanding your own limitations and being willing to forsake the summit.
Last year, she turned around before summiting a different peak in the area because of avalanche danger.
“I did not feel comfortable,” Miller said. “To this day, I feel really good about that decision; I have no regrets.”
In one of his first attempts, Arnette made it to 27,200 feet before he started throwing up. He made one of the hardest decisions of his life and turned around.
"I knew my body was not performing as it should," he said.
For those considering it: Do some homework, Miller said. Get some altitude experience.
“It is a beautiful, magical place for me,” she said. “I have had some of the best days of my life there. I think every person goes there looking for something different. But until you go there and climb it and experience it, it’s very difficult to judge it and understand what goes on up there.”